* The vice president has been key in domestic policy
* On European trip, dangled key messages on Iran, Syria
* Talk of bid for presidency in 2016 picking up
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 U.S. Vice President Joe Biden,
already deeply immersed in high-profile domestic policy, is
finding that his clout extends to foreign affairs as well, as he
plays a top surrogate role for President Barack Obama in the
early days of their second term.
Biden is now in many ways viewed as Obama's "Mr. Fix-it,"
who struck a crucial budget deal in January and who is able to
navigate his way comfortably through Washington's complex power
structure with a back-slapping joviality that Democrats find
endearing despite the occasional verbal misstep.
The 70-year-old former senator has often been viewed as
gaffe-prone, which makes his wide influence all the more
remarkable. Just last year Biden was the subject of media
speculation that Obama, when his re-election campaign was
struggling, might dump him in favor of Hillary Clinton.
"I think what's striking about Biden's role, particularly
recently, is both the public nature of it and the significance
of the portfolios," said Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice
presidency at St. Louis University.
A Reuters-Ipsos poll last week showed Biden leading several
of the Republicans most often mentioned as potential 2016
contenders, like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie.
"In terms of how Biden is perceived, there's a real sort of
folksiness - for lack of a better term - that people find
appealing," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. "He puts his foot
in his mouth, but who doesn't? It's sort of what makes him more
Obama, who has maintained a tight control of foreign policy
out of the White House, sent his No. 2 to Munich this month to
hold his second administration's first face-to-face contacts
with key U.S. allies. Biden visited France and Britain as well
In Munich, Biden dangled the possibility of direct U.S.
talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, which would be a
departure from the typical U.S. pattern of dealing with Tehran
along with five other major powers.
And under pressure to do more to help Syrian rebels, Obama
had Biden meet with Syrian opposition leaders and assure them
the United States would send them humanitarian aid in their bid
to oust the Syrian government.
Such a high-profile role contrasts with the way many past
vice presidents have been relegated to ceremonial functions like
representing the United States at funerals abroad.
Some vice presidents, like Dick Cheney under George W. Bush,
played powerful roles, but behind the scenes.
Biden has played significant roles both publicly and
privately, working internally as a sort of contrarian to
challenge policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, while
publicly taking on difficult sales jobs, like promoting Obama's
unpopular $787 billion economic stimulus plan in the first term.
As a devout Catholic, Biden's public support for gay
marriage last year caught the White House off guard and forced
Obama to voice his own backing for same-sex marriage.
"It's been that way from the beginning," said Aaron David
Miller, an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "You can't
diminish Biden's role over the first four years. He's been
incredibly public and very active."
In many ways, Biden is the exact opposite of the calm, cool
and unflappable Obama, being more prone to bombast and show
So it comes as no surprise that the satirical website, The
Onion, has developed an comedy series about him. The Onion's
Biden is a boozer - the real Biden does not drink - who stole
"800 feet of copper wire from a foreclosed home" and washes a
Trans Am muscle car in the White House driveway, shirtless.
Sometimes there is a sense that the fake Biden of The Onion
and the real one are somehow linked - such as when he was on
Capitol Hill to swear in senators.
"Spread your legs, you're gonna be frisked," he joked to
Senator Heidi Heitkamp's husband. To body-building Senator Tim
Scott, he said: "Need any help on your pecs, man, give me a
He told attendees at the Munich security conference that he
had traveled over 640,000 miles (1.02 million km) since becoming
vice president, and added: "Most the time the president sends me
to places that he doesn't want to go!"
Biden's loose tongue may have led Americans to underestimate
his role in Obama's first term.
But recent events, such the fiscal-cliff crisis, have shown
how reliant the president is on him.
It was Biden who brought about escape from fiscal chaos late
last year by finding common ground with Senate Republican leader
Mitch McConnell, whose antipathy for Obama is such that he once
vowed his major goal was to deny him a second term.
And it was Biden who negotiated with various groups and came
up with the first U.S. gun-control proposals in decades,
recommendations that Obama quickly endorsed and Congress is now
Just last week Biden was on Capitol Hill taking the
temperature of Senate Democrats on the gun control proposals.
Having spent 30 years in the Senate, he is viewed on Capitol
Hill as a more credible voice than Obama, who served less than a
full term as a senator.
"Senator Obama was here for 30 minutes; Senator Biden was
here for 30 years. That's the biggest difference. He's a lot
less cocky, doesn't hog the conversation, let's everybody speak,
and he understands it," said an aide to a senior Republican
Inevitably, conversation about Biden turns to whether he
will seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. He has
not ruled this out.
Biden fueled speculation about his plans by staging a party
of long-time friends and associates at his home in last January
to celebrate his second swearing-in. It included guests from the
early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
"I would say he's definitely keeping his options open," said
one participant, Sara Riley, a lawyer from Cedar Rapids, Iowa
who helped Biden's 2008 presidential campaign.
Biden will have to decide whether he can get elected at 74,
an advanced age for a president, and whether he would want to
run against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should
the 65-year-old wife for former President Bill Clinton decide to
stand as well.
At the White House, officials are well aware of the
speculation and want Biden to be a successful vice president
should he decide to seek the top job. And the best way for him
to be a successful vice president, they say, is for Obama to be
a successful president.
At the same time, Obama and the White House have been
careful not to choose sides between Biden and Clinton.
White House spokesman Jay Carney skirted the issue when
asked if Obama preferred one or the other.
"I think for the sake and sanity of all involved, it's worth
taking a little bit of a break from presidential election-year
politics," he said.